Interview with Edward Lucas
'It's as shocking to have a former KGB official running Russia as it would be to have a former SS colonel running Germany'
CHARLIE GILLIS | March 12, 2008 |
Edward Lucas has spent the past 20 years working as a journalist in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, covering the heady days at the end of the Cold War. Then came the rise of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent — developments that transformed the British reporter from a detached observer into a passionate advocate for a hardline stand against Moscow. His new book, The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, outlines his fears about the country's authoritarian drift and its impact on the world beyond. Now eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist magazine, Lucas spoke to Maclean's about Russia's new-found assertiveness, and why the complacent West must take notice.
Q: Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian reporter who was assassinated, was a friend of yours. Her name and address had appeared on an online "death list" shortly before the killing. Another of your journalist friends who had been critical of the Kremlin appeared on a similar list and now lives in fear. Is it fair to say the story of post-Soviet Russia has gotten personal for you?
A: It is personal in many ways. One is that I grew up with the Cold War very present in my life. I remember my father [an Oxford academic] risking his freedom by smuggling the works of Greek philosophers into Prague, giving them to people willing to risk their freedoms to discuss them. That left quite an impression. I was also there for the collapse of Communism, and it was a great few years of my life. A lot of my friends were in jail during the Communist era and then went on to become politicians and journalists. I don't want to see all that being undone now.
Q: You've been accused of fear-mongering about Russia, and about Vladimir Putin. How do you respond?
A: If I sound alarmist, it's because I'm alarmed. I travel all over the region and I see that Russia's pushing back hard. I also worry about what's happening inside Russia. I'm not prepared to sit back and say Russia's always been authoritarian and imperialist and we have to get on with it. It's not good for Russians and it's certainly not good for us.
Q: You do, however, compare the West's view of Russia today to the one we held in the 1930s. You also draw a parallel to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany.
A: I'm trying to wake people up. I think we've been in a pretty deep sleep about Russia. There's been a lot of wishful thinking, and I use the comparisons with the Third Reich because it's important to remember that the two totalitarian empires were pretty similar before the war. Stalin was killing more people than Hitler at that time, and we tend to forget how much the Soviet totalitarian past still overshadows Russia. So I make the historical comparisons so people will remember. When Putin says the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, which divided the potential spoils of war in eastern Europe] is legal, that would be as shocking as if a German leader said the anschluss, or the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, was legal. It's as shocking, in a way, to have a former KGB official running Russia as it would be to have a former SS colonel running Germany.
Q: Why do we project hope rather than pessimism onto Russia?
A: Part of it is just mental laziness. We've gotten used to the idea that Russia's okay, that it's a partner. That's a very comforting position, and it's been the dominant theme in the West for 10 years now. I just don't think it's justified by facts anymore.
Q: One of the pivotal developments in post-Soviet Russia has been the rise of former KGB operatives and their transformation into a political force. Did the rest of the world fail to grasp what was happening?
A: The KGB made a slow comeback. Pictures of the statue in front of [KGB headquarters] being pulled down as the Cold War ended made us feel that it had been toppled, just like the Stasi in East Germany. It came quite close to that; they had a hemorrhaging during that time where people went into the private sector, and the rest of the world wrote off the KGB as a force. In actual fact, it was being relabelled and topped up throughout the 1990s. The old spymaster Yevgeny Primakov came back to head the foreign intelligence service, and by the time Putin became head of what is now the FSB, he didn't look that different from the previous lot. When Putin became prime minister [in 1999], Primakov had already been in that position, too. And then we had this series of spectacular terrorist attacks in Moscow, blamed on the Chechens, which gave Putin the perfect opportunity to be tough. Soon after that came 9/11, and Putin said he was onside on the war on terror. We were in the mood for someone pretty tough to run Russia.
Q: Dmitri Medvedev, the president-elect, is not specifically a product of that milieu, though. He is often dismissed as Putin's poodle, but he has given voice to some liberal-sounding ideas about freedom and the rule of law. Are we short-selling him?
A: He's been a very efficient, loyal sidekick to Putin. And yes, there's always a chance that Medvedev's liberal rhetoric will turn into something in practice. But we didn't see it when he was running Gazprom, the state-controlled oil company. It was very opaque and inefficiently run. If he is a born-again crusader for legality and transparency, it's not borne out by his record.
Q: Can Putin maintain his current level of influence from the PM's position?
A: You know, Stalin was never prime minister or president. He was just general secretary of the party. It may be that Putin will go back to being chairman of United Russia [his political party]. I don't think he's going to stay as prime minister, because there's too much responsibility, and the prime minister gets blamed for everything. In the past few years, when things went wrong Putin has blamed prime ministers and has even sacked them. As chair of United Russia, you're basically unsackable and it has become the party of power. Personally, I think he'd like to come back as president, and that will require Medvedev to change the constitution.
Q: I think a lot of Westerners will be struck — shocked maybe — by your conclusion as to how Putin solidified power. You point to a series of bombings on apartment buildings in 1999 that killed hundreds of Russians and provided the grounds for the war in Chechnya. Do you think that Moscow was responsible for those?
A: Whether they were directly ordered, whether they were encouraged, I don't think we'll ever know. What is absolutely clear is that the official story about the Ryazan bomb [an attempt thwarted after an observant citizen spotted suspicious activity at his apartment building that turned out to be FSB agents] doesn't make sense — in fact, really stinks. The official version is that two FSB guys from Moscow steal a car, go to Ryazan, buy sugar at a market, buy cartridges, have a detonator with them and plant these sacks in an apartment block — all as a test of anti-terrorist vigilance on the part of the public. It just doesn't add up. Apart from the fact the Chechens have never done anything like it, the authorities were utterly unable to come up with a likely explanation when they were caught by the locals with what appeared be real explosives. So they switched stories and made up this thing about sugar. There's no definitive proof, but the balance of evidence is that the authorities were involved.
Q: You make the case that Russia is currently only a menace to its neighbours, but is on a dangerous trajectory. How do you get the West interested in Russia if its misbehaviour affects only those within the region?
A: It's true that, unlike the last Cold War, this is mainly a European show. What does interest the West is the Baltics, which are now our NATO allies. When members of the [Kremlin-supported] Nashi youth movement blockaded the Estonian embassy [in April 2007] and mobbed the Swedish ambassador's car as it tried to visit, an Estonian diplomat friend of mine described the collective Western response this way: "Oh my goodness, they're attacking white people now!" It made people feel like the Estonians weren't just saying they were in trouble, they actually were in trouble. Likewise, the cyber-attack on Estonia last April got top Western intelligence agencies interested. It was the first time we'd seen a big cyber-attack like that, and it came within a whisker of being quite serious. The other thing that is very important is energy. America is very interested in energy security right now, of getting gas out of the Caspian and trying to break Russia's hold on Central Asia. For that reason alone, I think Russia is of great interest to America.
Q: You do portray Western corporations and stock markets as the Kremlin's enablers, for putting profit and business ahead of the West's new allies. Can you explain why?
A: We've dropped almost all of our standards when it comes to Russian business, and we've got to get back a smell test. I'm all in favour of integrating legitimate businesses into Western stock markets. My problem is with what I call para-statal entities — phony companies like Gazprom, which are basically the oil and gas divisions of Kremlin Inc. and which can't answer questions on ownership and related party transactions in a way that would satisfy a tough regulator in New York. But they're allowed to come to London instead, and I think that's wrong. I secondly worry about the way non-listed companies are able to use Western banks, law firms and accountants to divert money from shareholders of Gazprom and other companies. I think we've completely lost our moral compass.
Q: I think there's confusion in the West, even at the highest political levels, of the degree to which Putin reflects the popular will. If Russians really want what he provides, what can the rest of the world really do?
A: First, one has to pick apart whether he's really doing what Russians want. I think a lot of pro-Putin sentiment is actually anti-Yeltsin, anti-1990s reaction against a ghastly time that we've perhaps underestimated. Secondly, a lot of what appears to be pro-Putin sentiment is actually propaganda staged for television and that sort of thing. Then there's the high price of oil. While on the surface one can say Putin is very popular, one just has to ask if Putin had Yeltsin's oil price and vice versa, what Putin's popularity ranking might be. So I don't think this pro-Putin stuff is completely solid, and I don't think we can abandon the people in Russia to this idea that the country is all about authoritarianism and empire. Russia also has a fantastic history of brave campaigning for human rights and freedom. It's almost racist to say, oh, the Russians don't really want democracy.
Q: Any response out of Russia to your book?
A: The Kremlin and the embassy in London have turned down my publisher's invitations to publicly debate me. Not from official Russia. I do get extremely unpleasant emails, including one that invited me to "come and taste our polonium." A person with thinner skin might be intimidated.